Thursday 13 October 2016

How I Came to Not Feel Overwhelmed by Work: A Time Management System

A friend recently told me how torturously behind and overwhelmed she feels, all the time. Knowing how common that is, she said she was sure I could relate. Of course I could, and yet I realized that for the most part, major work stress is something I don't experience anymore. (Except in the weeks leading up to a tour!) 

There are a lot of reasons for this. I've been consciously working on time management and stress reduction for years, and looking back now, I see I've made real progress. I tried many things and arrived at ones that work for me. They are necessarily holistic, ranging from decisions about my life, ways I use my body, and spiritual practices – to very concrete methods for planning, work, and communication. 

I'd like to explain all these solutions, and how I got motivated to find them in the first place. Maybe I will do that in future posts. But I spend a lot of time writing about abstract and spiritual stuff, and today I'm more inspired to focus on the practical side. So here's one very concrete thing that helps me manage time and stress: the system I've developed for organizing my week.

This system might seem complex as you read about it, but it's actually quite simple, logical, and intuitive. Following it ensures that nothing I need or really want to do slips between the cracks, and and everything gets spread out in a manageable way. It's of course designed for the particulars of my life, but you may find some parts useful to adapt to yours.


I've struggled a lot with to-do lists. There was a time when I put so many things on them, and yet had so little ability to stay on top them, that my enormous and ever-expanding List became an utter mockery of productivity. Recognizing this, yet not having any idea what to do about it, I started cynically saying, whenever confronted with a new thing I had to do, "I'll condemn it to my List." The psychological benefits of uploading a task from my worried head to a piece of paper were undercut by knowing that in so doing, I insured it would never get done.

Other times, forcing myself to do everything in my power actually accomplish my lists, I felt so enslaved by them that they seemed the enemy of anything spontaneous in my life. In rare fits of rebellion, I'd abandon them completely. That was actually a good exercise, helping me find the more balanced approach to lists I now take.

Key, of course, is developing a good sense of what I can and will actually accomplish in a given time frame. That's how I decide what items to put on my list for that period. I've tried to describe that sense as "things that feel right, necessary, or inspiring to do." But really, it is a kind of intuition. I look at the all the things I want and need to do, and then use my intuition to get a feel for which of them are actually meant to be done. So intuition is just as important as organization in time management.

But even just thinking in terms of time frames is very helpful, rather than having one grand List for now until the end of time, as I used to. And having specific times in the day and week to always do to certain kinds of things, just like places for items around the house, makes them easier to manage and relieves a lot of stress.


The fact that I go on a long tour about every year divides my life conveniently into phases. After returning from a tour, I make a list for the time from now until my next tour. I put on it everything I truly want and need to do, yet only the things my intuition tells me are meant and able to be done in this phase. (If you don't have such phases, try seasons.) I include things like taxes, seeing the doctor, and making travel plans, as well as stuff for work, friends, family, and community. Items needing to be done on specific days of the year go not on this list, but in my calendar. 

I tend to keep personal, creative, and social things off my lists, preferring to let them happen more spontaneously. This isn't neglecting them. I have a long-standing commitment to follow inspiration of any kind whenever it strikes, even if that means dropping work. And the less creative aspects of my career as an artist, such as promoting tours and scheduling recording sessions, all go on my lists.

On a separate piece of paper, I also make a list of things to do, fix, and clean around the house during the current phase. And I keep a running shopping list on the fridge, which I add to whenever something gets low. On all three of these lists, and in my calendar, I check something off when it is done, or cross it out if I decide it will never be done. And I add new items whenever they come up.


In addition to appointments and events, I use my calendar for things to be done at specific times in the future. For example, at the beginning of each season, I write in all recurring monthly tasks, such as "Catweazle email" on every last Wednesday. When I know that something will need to be done in a certain week, but the day doesn't matter, I choose one for it arbitrarily (or intuitively), generally avoiding Mondays and Fridays, which tend to get overburdened.


Being self-employed and working at home, I had to create structure to prevent work from filling up all my time. I decided on a pretty standard, Monday to Friday, 40-hour work week, as a way to feel in step with society, and still have the down-time I need to be happy and healthy. Except in the two or so weeks leading up to a tour, I'm pretty firm about no work on evenings and weekends, except creative projects, doing dishes, and cooking, which I enjoy. I also honour most legal holidays by working only a half day.

I've come to include in my 40 hours breakfast, lunch, and whatever out-of-the-house errands are required during the week. Favours for friends usually happen in the evenings. Housework and projects from my house list are reserved for Sunday, which is also a no-internet day.


I start each day with a ritual walk I've developed to clear my mind and remind myself of the things that really matter to me. I'll talk about this in a future post. 

Every monday morning, after my walk and over breakfast, I make a list for the week in my notebook. I write down all things from the top of my head, and from my Seasonal list, that feel right, necessary, or inspiring to do this week, taking care not to include more than is realistic. I add any things I've entered in my calendar to be done this week. And I include all the things I do every weekday, like email, Facebook messages, and my back exercises.

Then I look at the unfinished items on the previous week's list. I may realize some of these are now unnecessary or impossible. Others I may decide should be put back into my calendar to be done on a certain later date, or put onto the seasonal list to be done at an unspecified time. All remaining unfinished items get transferred to this week's list. 

Once my week list is made, I put a circle next to each of the recurring daily tasks, like email. Then I put a circle next to all the additional things that feel right, urgent, or inspiring – and realistic – to do, or at least begin, today. 


Then I start my work day, knowing that all I have to focus on, all day long, are the items with circles next to them. When new items come up during the day, I put them on my season list, calendar, or week list, but I try not to add them to the things already circled for today. 

Within the day, I do email first, and then other items in rough order of urgency. I loosely alternate less and more fun items, so that I get a little reward each time I finish something unpleasant. I also alternate time at the computer with other tasks like dishes and phone calls, for the benefit of my body. And I've gradually adopted a habit of doing administrative work in the first part of the day, and more creative stuff after lunch. 

On my best days I get into a real flow, where I have an intuitive sense of every next step. I've learned to trust my intuition about when to do things. I find that if I don't do things until it really feels right, then even items I've been dreading end up quite welcome, and easier than expected, when I actually do them.

When I finish something I do each weekday (like email), I put a check through its circle, but not through the item itself, unless it's Friday. Similarly, when I do as much as I'm going to do today on a particular item, I check the item's circle but not the item itself. When I actually finish an item, I put checks through both its circle and its name. 

If over the course of the day, I realize that an item is unnecessary or impossible, I cross out both it and its circle. If I realize one of today's items would be better postponed to the following week, I cross out its circle, but not the item. And when I come to the end of the day, if there are items I didn't get to at all, I leave them and their circles unchecked and uncrossed-out.

The next morning, I repeat the process, putting new circles next to all the recurring items, and any additional things I want to do that day. Any unchecked circles from the previous day become part of today's focus.

When I get to the end of Friday, I just leave my list as it is, because by that time all items will be either checked off, crossed out, or ready to be possibly transferred to next week's list on Monday. Here's a picture of this week's list as it stands tonight (Thursday).


Over the weekend, if I think of new things that should be done the following week, I add them to the previous week's list, to be transferred to the next week's list on Monday. Other than that, I don't really look at my list on weekends. On Saturdays, all structure (except my morning walk) goes out the window and I wallow in total spontaneity.

On Sunday morning, I make a list of stuff to do around the house. I write down the things that urgently need to be done, and, if l have time, some items from my long-term list of house projects. Then I go about that list over the course of the day, often listening to music, which I never do during work hours over the week.


Most of my work time is taken up by communication of one form or another, primarily email. Here's how I manage it.

As I've said, I do email first thing in the day. After getting my mail, I begin by selecting everything I don't want or need, and then deleting it all in one stroke. If there's something from a source that's been repeatedly sending me stuff I don't want, I leave it in my inbox to remind me to unsubscribe from it later. 

Then I start opening all of today's new emails in chronological order. Once I've done everything I need to do with a given message, I delete it, unless I might need information from it later, in which case I move it to an appropriate mailbox. Here's how I handle different kinds of emails:

  • For each email warranting an answer, I generally try to respond fully the day it comes in, and then delete it.
  • If I'm not ready to respond now, I usually say, "Thanks – I'll get back to you this week [or next week]." In that case, I leave it in my inbox to remind me.
  • If an email will require further action more than two weeks from now, I make a note in my calendar or season list, and then move it to an appropriate mailbox where I can find it when I need it.
  • Personal emails will sometimes get an immediate "Great to hear from you – really looking to reading this!", but I don't fully read or respond to them until after work. I do try to give a full response within a few days, and then delete.
  • Emails with interesting but not work-related material and links go straight into a mailbox called "Check Out." I open things from that mailbox – usually starting with the most recent – at my leisure over lunch and occasionally on evenings or Saturdays. But I don't divert my focus there during work.
  • When uninteresting links come in, I delete them right away – unless they're from friends. In that case, I usually give them the benefit of the doubt, move them to Check Out, and respond right away with "Thanks for this – I'll let you know when I've looked at it!"
  • When an invitation to an interesting event comes in, I copy the time and location to my calendar, then delete the email. I only RSVP if I'm certain I'll go. That way, on any given week, I have various options for going out in my calendar.

When I've thus dealt with all my new messages, I go to the bottom of my inbox and start working on the ones left over from previous days, in chronological order. Having followed the above rules generally leaves me with less than 30 messages in my inbox at any one time, so this is not a daunting task. If new messages come in while I'm handling the older ones, I usually take care of them right away. 

Once I've dealt with the morning's new mail and the mail left from previous days, I consider email basically done for the day, put a check through the circle next to "email," and move on. Of course, new messages keep coming in over the rest of the day. If I can handle them within about five minutes, I do. But if emails requiring more time than that come in after lunch, I usually leave them for the next day. This has proven a very useful boundary to keep. 

I'm working on being brief in my own emails, and not over-thinking them. I recently realized a big reason why I spend so much time on email: fear. Worrying about every possible reaction people might have, I put a lot of time into trying to prevent them from feeling offended, uncompelled, or imposed upon by my emails. So I'm now cutting the amount of time I spend apologizing in advance, trying to persuade, and writing loopholes like "It's totally fine if you don't want to do this." 

On the other hand, when I just fire off one hastily written email after another, I work myself into a frenzy of tension, bitterness, and mistakes. I recently hit upon a practice that helps achieve balance and a productive flow. With each email I write, just before pressing send, I do a micro-meditation. I look up from the computer or close my eyes, and briefly take in the sights or sounds of the day around me. Then, breathing in, I focus on the sensations in my body, and breathing out, I press send. 

It didn't take long to build the habit of doing this for each message. It keeps me calm, and often leads to realizations about how to shorten or improve an email before sending it. And the recurring focus on my body greatly improves my posture while working. 

Another tool I use to lighten the burden of email is . . . the phone call. Much time spent carefully composing messages, and getting into endless back-and-forth, can be saved through a simple live connection.


I decided a long time ago that I would not use the internet, and social media in particular, for socializing. I've mostly stuck to this. I conduct my social life mainly through face-to-face offline connections, not constant online "connectivity."

This leaves me no real reason to watch my Facebook feed or follow people on Twitter. So I've set FB to simply email me when someone invites me to an event, tags me in a post or photo, or messages me. I check my FB inbox once a day in case anyone has messaged from their phone, which doesn't trigger notification. Other than that, and the occasional political posting, I use social media pretty much only to promote the cultural events I organize as part of my work. When I get non-work-related FB messages, I don't let them turn into extended conversations. And I rarely engage in online commenting. 


For me, managing time and stress is very much about two kinds of personal rules: boundaries and commitments.  

Boundaries, such as my Facebook limits and internet-free Sundays, are ways I keep unwanted outer and inner forces from encroaching on things I hold sacred, such as creativity and peace of mind. And commitments, like my daily morning walk and my pledge to follow inspiration whenever it comes, are ways I support those sacred things. They're essentially the same; boundaries are just negative (I will not allow X), while commitments are positive (I will do Y). 

Other boundaries I maintain are not having a cell phone, keeping social calls (on my landline) to a minimum during work hours, and not turning on my computer until after breakfast. And other commitments are doing a short meditation whenever I get stressed or have a big decision to make. I'm not inflexible about any of these rules, but I am firm.

True boundaries and commitments are not fear-based attempts to control ourselves and the world by force of will. They are outer responses to inner sensitivities. Setting one is an active step taken after a passive discovery – of a limit, need, longing, calling, or readiness within oneself. For example, I set my 40 hour work week when I realized I had a deep yearning for me-time in the evenings and weekends. 

True boundaries and commitments are ultimately a path to honouring ourselves. And when we do that, life has a way of coming along. Work can expand to fill whatever time I give it. But if I stick to forty hours, what's really needed always gets done. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this Michael. Systems as supportive structure for personal growth, brilliantly stated.


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